Defying Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, the Utah Senate, a packed room of people and what public polls show is a hefty majority of Utahns, a House legislative committee Wednesday night killed a health care expansion bill known as the Healthy Utah plan.
A couple dozen members of the public and numerous representatives from industrial and commercial industries as well as organizations representing hospitals and doctors, all spoke in favor of the plan that would have provided health insurance for more than 100,000 Utahns.
Three people spoke against the Healthy Utah plan, which was put forward by Sen. Brian Shiozawa, R-Cottonwood Heights.
In defiance of this support, the House Business and Labor Committee shot down Shiozawa’s Senate Bill 164 on a 9 to 4 vote.
In his closing statements before the vote, Shiozawa, a physician, pleaded with his colleagues to at least allow the bill to be heard on the House floor, where all of the state’s representatives could take their stand on what has become the seminal issue of this legislative session.
“This is one of the biggest bills you may face in your legislative careers, and the fate of this bill is frankly in your hands,” Shiozawa told the committee. “This is not a bad bill that should be filtered out. This is something that has real potential impact.”
Healthy Utah’s demise in the House paves the way for a potential scenario that few lawmakers have said would be palatable: that the Legislature could once again fail to take any action on expanding health coverage to those in need.
The Healthy Utah plan, which of late has been referred to as Healthy Utah 2.0 because it would have come up for review, or be dismantled after two years, would have provided insurance coverage to around 100,000 people.
Under the bill, the state would have had to come up with roughly $25 million, while the federal government would have kicked in nearly $1 billion. These federal funds would have been drawn from Utah taxpayer money that is, and will continue to, flow to Washington D.C. to pay for health plans.
In its failure to expand Medicaid coverage to its people, or create a plan of its own, Utah has so far abandoned hundreds of millions in taxpayer money from Utahns that could be allocated to pay for coverage.
Controversial as Healthy Utah has been, it was approved by the Senate 14 to 11. This disconnect between the House and Senate could set up a scenario where a rival bill by Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, which insures far fewer people and lassoes a fraction of the federal funding, could go down in flames before the Senate.
Dunnigan’s solution to providing health coverage is House Bill 446, known as Utah Cares, which would provide comprehensive coverage to 22,000 Utahns, and lesser coverage to around tens of thousands more.
The committee contemplated both bills, and a short time after batting Shiozawa’s bill to the ground, approved Dunnigan’s plan.
There was some talk of “marrying” the plans, a possibility that both Shiozawa and Dunnigan said could be a possibility.
But the ideological divide some lawmakers feel toward providing health care for those in need remains vast.
Even when it came to Dunnigan’s bill, some lawmakers, like Rep. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, grumbled as he cast his “yes” vote.
Rep. Jon Standard, R-St. George, said he prefers to do nothing on the health care matter, and although he supported Dunnigan’s bill, he said he would go no further. “My purest ideological stance is to be opposed to pretty much any form of Medicaid expansion,” Standard said. “This is my limit.”
The debate itself on Healthy Utah represented a victory of sorts to Shiozawa. After the Senate approved the bill on Feb. 24, House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Saratoga Springs, said he wouldn’t allow the bill to be heard by the House. His reasoning was based on closed-door discussions with his colleagues on the bill, in which too few votes apparently existed to warrant it taking up any time as the session limped toward the finish line.
This stalemate drew to a close on March 2, when Hughes said not only would SB 164 be heard, but it would be considered in tandem during a special committee hearing with HB 446.
Hughes’ week-long refusal to allow his colleagues to consider Healthy Utah was cast by Democratic and Republican legislators and an array of political watchdogs as an effort not only to slay a bill he did not like, but to upend the public process on a hallmark issue.
After the hearing, Shiozawa reiterated this sentiment, telling reporters that he believed the committee should have at least sent the bill to the full House, where all representatives could have had their say.
He said he didn’t think it sound to “shield” the rest of the House from the opportunity to debate the bill.
As is often the case on health care issues, the committee heard from a diverse cross section of Utahns who supported the Healthy Utah plan.
Among them was Dr. Vivian Lee, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine. Lee said she felt the state had the responsibility to provide health-care coverage to “as many people as we can.”
“If we can provide that access to health care, I believe it is the compassionate thing to do…” she said. “I believe very deeply that as Utahns, and the values that we all hold very dear to our hearts here in this state, it is the right thing to provide this kind of health care.”
Dr. David Patton, executive director of the Utah Department of Health, said the return on the investment under Healthy Utah is 37 to 1, and would pump a “billion dollars into the Utah economy over that two-year period.”
Shiozawa said this infusion of cash would create up to 3,000 new jobs.
Dave Davis, president of the Utah Food Industry Association and the Utah Retail Merchants Association, told the committee that if they were hearing these sorts of numbers coming from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, which woos corporations to Utah through income tax breaks, lawmakers would be “cheering.”
Diane Anderson said she broke her back at work and had her Workers’ Compensation claim denied. Now in need of comprehensive health care, she says she is one of the many who doesn’t qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act and doesn’t’ meet the bar for Medicaid.
Without Healthy Utah, or something similar that would mirror Medicaid expansion, she says she and people like her have one alternative: “All we can do is just go into a corner and die.”
To read Rep. Shiozawa’s bill, click here
. To read Rep. Dunnigan’s bill, click here
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